After attending a seminar with Ann Wroe, the obituary editor for The Economist, I became fascinated with the art of obituary writing. An obituary, a public notice of death that recounts a person’s life, is a gateway into a world that most of the living shun; an obituarist’s excitement for their job borders an air of perversion and morbidity that we tend to judge in a negative light. Though I also shared these preconceived notions, I later found obituaries to be an exquisite blend of journalistic reporting and novelistic prose.
When we consider the obituary a retelling of the glories of one’s life, we must also ask: is the obituary a pedestal? Does everyone deserve one?
I have come to understand that in American culture, the obituary is a form of reverence that we use to elevate those we deem “great” and those who lived “good” lives. It frames those who passed away in an era of timelessness. It’s a tribute that honors the profundity of the life of an individual. But it’s these abstract terms that sometimes shroud the obituary in a veil of beauty and glamour.
Obituaries all follow similar structures. It usually starts with the deceased’s biographical information as well as the date, time and sometimes causes of death. The rest of the piece discusses their accomplishments, dreams and legacy. There is nothing wrong with this. However, most obituaries also seem to be overly rosy depictions of the deceased. Fueled by the desire to appreciate life in all its perfection after it is gone, this idealistic portrayal often creates a gaping hole in an obituary that forgets about the other, less appealing side of life. But maybe the obituary does not require multiple facets. Perhaps this form of writing is meant only to be a preservation of a positive memory.
I can’t, with any credibility, tell you how to write an obituary. I can and do, however, propose an alternative that not only honors a person’s legacy but also puts their actions and life story in perspective.
From a former Gestapo officer who ran a delicatessen in Argentina to the incandescent light bulb to the last speaker of the Eyak language, Marie Smith, Wroe’s subjects extend beyond celebrities, politicians and household names into the strange and unknown: the so-called “nobodies” and “nothings” of the world. But her obituaries do not focus on the ways in which people died, give chronological accounts of their lives or list their accolades. Instead, Wroe recognizes the uniqueness of each life, crafting each piece to “get the texture and the sound and even the smell of someone … get right inside the essence of that person.”
“I don’t want to write what everyone else thinks of the person,” Wroe said in an interview. “I want what they thought of the world.”
But her subjects are not always well received. Wroe’s coverage of George Floyd and Osama bin Laden faced backlash from American audiences. For the latter, Wroe said many American readers thought that portraying bin Laden as someone who ate yogurt with honey or took his children to the beach to let them sleep under the stars was too human, too loving for the most wanted terrorist in the world.
Publishing an obituary seems to require the subject to have been honorable. I don’t know why that is.
Maybe our fear that the unconscious judgment of others would tarnish the character of the deceased is what drives us to paint a loving portrayal of the dead. Or maybe an obituary somehow momentarily expunges our emotions and reconciles our pain. For whatever reason, these stories are one-sided. Some obituaries are written from the perspective of a close friend or a loved one — not the person themselves. The result is a filtered, biased perspective of who that person really was.
When someone dies, what is lost is not just the person but also their unique lens through which they saw the world. Wroe tries to preserve their innocence, transposing their identity and their voice in just a thousand words. For example, in her obituary of Smith, Wroe remembers her as “the only person left who remembered all the different words for all the parts of a spruce tree,” and Wroe notes that “nobody is ever going to see a spruce tree in that way again.”
No one is perfect and uncomplicated. To shed just a window of light on what someone once was is its own form of immortalization, one that captures the beauty of every facet of the individual.
In no way should the obituary memorialize or excuse immoral actions. Rather, it should be a reflection of how that person saw themselves. It should relinquish all judgment. Every obituary should portray the complexity and the humanity — the moral and the immoral, the happiness and the melancholy — of the person for whom it is written.
Sophia Ling (24C) is from Carmel, Indiana.